It had been 50 years since T.C. Christensen stepped foot in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium on Brigham Young University’s campus.

Christensen was there to watch a screening of his latest movie “Escape from Germany.” It’s about Latter-day Saint missionaries who have to escape from Nazi Germany.

At the end of the movie, Christensen ran down the aisle as students gave him a standing ovation. On its own, it was a touching moment, but 50 years prior, Christensen remembers sitting in that very auditorium when Frank Capra ran down the aisle in a similar fashion.

Capra, known for films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is a personal inspiration to Christensen because he made movies “about the little person.”

“It made me cry to be back there and see in 50 years that I maybe had learned something,” Christensen said during an interview with the Deseret News in his office where he writes scripts.

“I got all these emotions going through me because they really loved the film,” said Christensen. “They were applauding and clapping and laughing at the parts that are supposed to be funny.”

As Christensen spoke, he got out of his chair and walked a few steps over to his wall where he had a framed copy of an award he won for a film he entered into a festival — the Frank Capra Award.

Christensen wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t comparing himself to Capra. But through his filmmaking, he shares a similar goal: He wants to tell stories about people.

Though Christensen has a mile-high list of credits as cinematographer and director across a variety of genres, he’s become known for making movies that deal with Latter-day Saint history.

“I actually have never set out to say I’m going to do all these church stories,” said Christensen, who’s behind movies like “17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue.”

“I’m looking for the best stories I can and we have so many great stories in our history and culture that that’s where I end up finding the best stories,” said Christensen. The whole world is his inspiration. He looks to book, art and conversations for his ideas.

He receives letters in the mail or phone calls that lead him down the trail to his subject — even if it takes years for the idea to come to fruition.

“Escape from Germany” came from a book, said Christensen, explaining he was sent Terry Bohle Montague’s “‘Mine Angels Round About’: West German Mission Evacuation 1939″ around eight or nine years ago. He read it and knew he wanted to do something with it.

But making a period piece is expensive.

Go to a multiplex movie theater and you’ll see films with $50 million or $100 million budgets. But Christensen said his budget wasn’t anywhere in that ballpark. And for a film like “Escape from Germany,” he needed shots of real vintage trains and big barns. Utah didn’t have that as a backdrop.

Still, Christensen wanted to pursue making the film because, as he put it, there’s a protagonist with a goal that matters and he has to face an antagonist, the Nazis, and overcome obstacles in an unexpected way.

“Those are the key elements that I look for and this film had it,” he said.

After getting a script together, Christensen faced several obstacles of his own. When ramping up for production, COVID-19 hit. At that point, he had 80% of the cast assembled and most of the financing was done. Instead of starting to film, as some others in the business had done, he shut down production. Christensen said that was because if someone got sick, then they would have to stop anyway.

When they could start filming, they moved production to Budapest, Hungary, for part of it.

Before making the trip, Christensen said they hired a production company and wired them the money to do the shoot. But the day before they were to start the shoot, the company hadn’t received the wired money yet. The company said it wouldn’t start production until it received the funds.

“Like good boys and girls, we went to church on Sunday and in church, there was a man there who did not live in Hungary,” said Christensen. “He was visiting. It was the first time he’d been there for years.”

This man overheard their conversation about the trouble with the wire and offered to help them.

“Within an hour or so, we had our funds transferred. We overcame the problem, but that was very near disaster,” said Christensen.

This wasn’t the only miracle that happened while filming, according to Christensen.

Photograph from the production of T.C. Christensen's "Escape from Germany" which was released in theaters earlier this year. | T.C. Christensen

For Christensen, telling true stories matters. It’s not that he doesn’t like fiction films — he thinks many of them are fantastic — but he thinks when stories are true, “it just ups the ante so much.” In the case of “Escape from Germany,” he ended up getting around 90% of the extras to be descendants of missionaries that really did escape from Germany.

“I cried every day those descendants were there,” he said. “I’d introduce them to the cast and crew before we started.” The families would yell out the name of their ancestor on set.

A lot of the families even traveled from out of state to be part of the film. He found the families based on notes Montague had meticulously kept from decades past when she wrote her book.

“It just really touched me to see that love they had of their ancestor and that they wanted to honor them by being in this film about them,” said Christensen.

These connections to the past extend beyond the participation of descendants. There’s a character in the film played by Brad Witbeck who carries around a camera. As Christensen did his research, he tracked down this character’s living son and ended up getting the camera from him.

Today, Christensen has that camera in his office, too. The son gifted it to him.

Filmmaker T.C. Christensen shows one of his old film cameras as he talks about his work and what might be next for him during an interview in Farmington on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. “Escape from Germany” has earned more than $2 million in the box office. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Escape from Germany” has earned more than $2 million in the box office, which, for the niche audience interested in Latter-day Saint films, is a hit. It’s not the only one of Christensen’s films to perform well.

Christensen said early in his career, he did IMAX films and commercials, but switched over to Latter-day Saint films later on.

When he started down the path of making these Latter-day Saint films, Christensen said he had to make a conscious decision. He wasn’t going to apologize for making Latter-day Saint films.

“I’m not apologizing that these people said they had miracles,” said Christensen, explaining he knew he had to tell these stories “with both feet in so that whoever watches the film will feel that this is made by a believer.”

When asked from where Christensen draws his inspiration, he pointed toward Capra, Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille.

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“It’s a Wonderful Life” was made after Capra saw a Christmas card, said Christensen. When talking about Spielberg, Christensen said “Schindler’s List” is one of the greatest movies ever made. He also said “The Godfather” is another example of quality storytelling.

A good film is one where “you care about the characters and that the film elicits emotions,” said Christensen. “I think that’s why we go to to the movies. We don’t go there to learn better geometry.”

Christensen said films encapsulate all of the arts. It takes storytelling, it takes choreography and dance, it takes visual art and in part, that’s what makes movies so compelling.

“When you’re there in a darkened theater and you’re bombarded by all of those things at once, I think you have a much greater chance of becoming emotionally involved,” said Christensen.

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